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Sunday, March 17, 2002
Olson endures Pit's wrath with class

By Curry Kirkpatrick
ESPN The Magazine

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- It was 1999 when Arizona lost a game to New Mexico here on a basket with about four seconds left. Trouble is, the play took about 40 seconds to run. The Lobos -- bitter enemies of the Wildcats when both were in the late, extremely great, old WAC conference -- were even more bitter that uppity Arizona had abandoned them and their brethren to go join the Pac-10.

So, the controversial ending was sweet revenge -- until 'Cat coach Lute Olson (his teams then 2-6 in the UNM hellhole nicknamed The Pit) ruined even that when, outraged at the "clock management", he vowed never to play in Albuquerque again.

Lute Olson
Lute Olson heard the boos, but left the Pit on Saturday night on his way to the Sweet 16.

And his teams hadn't.

Until Thursday and Saturday.

Which might explain why CBS viewers shouldn't have switched their dials just because they thought they had mistakenly tuned into WWF SmackDown -- or a Russell Crowe poetry reading at the Society for Understanding Schizophrenia. That continuous chorale of extremely loud booing from every nook and cranny of the seemingly bottomless Pitt actually was coming from the audience at the NCAA Tournament West Sub-Regional. And it was solely for the benefit of His Luteness.

Never. Never. Never. Not against North Carolina at Cameron Indoor. Not against Georgetown at The Carrier Dome. Not against USC at Pauley Pavilion. Not against Bob Knight anywhere in the Civilized World. And surely never in the NCAA Tournament, no how, no place, no way, nein, nil, nada, has there ever been such booing as greeted Olson -- and, secondarily (in that they weren't wearing ear plugs) his Wildcats -- whenever the 67-year old grandfather's distinguished, silver-haired mug appeared within larynx shot of the Lobos' vociferous fanatics.

When Arizona took the court to play Santa Barbara ... massive boos. When Arizona took the court to play Wyoming ... massive boos. Sure, New Mexico is now in the Mountain West Conference, the same as Wyoming -- but the local gentry wasn't exactly joining the Cowboy crowd to win one for the league. Lute Olson could have been playing the Charles Manson All-Stars -- and Squeaky Fromme would've been the player getting the Standing O's.

Lois Hagemayer spoke for most of the New Mexican citizenry when she told the Albuquerque Journal: "(Olson) just needs to think a little bit before he opens his mouth. That (vowing not to return) was unnecessary. This crowd is going to kill him when he does something like that."

Ms. Hagemayer is 65.

Then again, that's only two years short of Olson, his own self -- who was vastly amused by the whole thing. One day he seemed to avoid the subject, saying his teams loved to play in front of loud crowds, which got their "adrenelin" pumping. Another day he said he appreciated the home folks "exercising their lungs ... but their venting would not make a lick of difference. I've been booed a lot of places."

Well, not really. Not like this. Not like how the scurrilous streams of bile began spilling over Arizona's players as well. "Daddy's Better" and "Ugly White Boy" were just a few of the more printable phrases which came flying from the Pit upon the rather bemused heads of Wildcat juniors Luke Walton (Bill's son) and Rick Anderson. "Our preseason schedule prepared us for winning in hostile environments," said Walton. "This wouldn't affect us as much as it would a normal team."

Not that it affected Arizona -- or Olson -- at all considering the Wildcats swept Santa Boobara, 86-81, and Whineyoming, 68-60, to move into the Sweet 16 for the ninth time in Olson's tenure at Tucson.

All the same, wasn't the Olson nuclear family -- five grown children, 14 grandchildren and assorted thousands of in-laws and wannbe-laws who traipse around NCAA venues looking Scandinavian picturesque -- a bit hurt by all these nasty, noisy vibes?

"Not really," said Christi Olson-Snyder, Lute's youngest daughter. "Consider the source. Look at the Make A Wish guy! How classy is that?"

Make A Wish?

Oh yeah. That guy. It seems that prior to the games an unidentified local man had phoned the Albuquerque mayor's office requesting two tickets for the Make A Wish foundation. After representatives of His Honor went to the trouble of landing the pair, they searched for the man to no avail. The request was a total scam. But then the police found him living in a local establishment known as The Prince Motel. This prince was arrested.

On the Friday between games, moreover, Olson-Snyder thought she had escaped the loathings of Tribe Lobo. But an hour away in one of Santa Fe's chi chi watering holes an otherwise perfectly nice fellow was ruminating on what a "whine dog" Lute Olson was.

The next afternoon -- before, during and after Arizona's clash with Wyoming -- more boos rained down on Olson's elegant mane. "We should have applied for a change of venue," said another Olson family member. "A friendlier place," said another. "Like, say, Laramie." But another Arizona victory awaited the clan, as well.

Reporter: "Lute, would you have ever thought you could bring a team in here and shoot 28 free throws -- to the other team's 7?"

Lute: "Not against New Mexico I wouldn't. That would never happen."

Prior to ESPN's Sunday Night Conversation, taped just off his hated stalking ground, Olson finally started smiling. "The fans of New Mexico are supposed to be angry because we won't play here," he said, chuckling. "But it's perfectly obvious they don't want us here, anyway."

Olson-Snyder had just presented her father with a new red New Mexico teeshirt to wear for the TV cameras. He laughed -- but declined. Producer Shari Greenberg suggested he leave a parting message for the New Mexico fans on a locker room blackboard. He laughed -- but declined. Another reporter produced a Lute Olson bobble head doll for him "to leave behind for them to remember you by."

"No, I think I'll just slip out of here in the dead of night, quietly," said Olson.

So he did -- his teams now still only 4-6. But this time Lute Olson was not worried about the clock and as happy as can be.

Curry Kirkpatrick writes for ESPN Magazine.